A Year In Books – February

Dead in the West – Joe R. Lansdale
The Scent of New Mown Hay – John Blackburn
Sailor on the Seas of Fate – Michael Moorcock
Smog – Italo Calvino
Whitstable – Stephen Volk

 

Dead In The West – Joe R. Lansdale

 
A fun weird western by Joe Lansdale, mixing zombies, ancient magic and a gunfighting preacher with a dark past.

When the Reverend Jebebiah Mercer rides into the small Texas town of Mud Creek, he finds that the dead are returning to life (or unlife) to take revenge on the townsfolk. A while before, the injun hatin’ elements murdered a travelling medicine man and his wife and now the medicine man has reached out from beyond the grave. Mercer and his trusty sixshooter are the only things that stand between Mud Creek and its private undead apocalypse.

One of Lansdale’s early works, this short novel is packed with characters and incident, all with a distinctly weird west flavour. If you enjoyed his run on Jonah Hex a few years ago (where he set the scar-faced gunfighter against zombies and Lovecraftian beings) then Dead in the West is for you. Hell, even if you didn’t read Jonah Hex, give Dead in the West a go anyway.

 

The Scent of New Mown Hay – John Blackburn.

 
A curious blend of thriller/ eco horror/ cosy catastrophe. Effective in parts but overwritten by modern standards with stock characters.

A mysterious plague has struck Russia (this is back in the Soviet era, you understand, when the USSR was seen as the world’s bogeyman) and despite the authorities best attempts to contain the threat, it seems as if the whole world will soon fall prey to it. Cue a race against time as a small group of British scientists and a shadowy counter-espionage organisation search for the cause and cure of the plague.

The Scent of New Mown Hay is a strange hybrid of a book, owing something to the cosy catastrophe wave of British science fiction that flowered in the 1950s and is probably given its best expression in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

Blackburn’s central maguffin – the plague itself which only targets women and changes them into strange mutated creatures accompanied by the titular scent – allows him to deliver some moments of genuine horror, but because so many of the characters come directly from central casting (particularly if that particular branch belongs to the Rank Organisation) it makes it difficult sometimes to engage with or care about them – men are square jawed and rugged, women dainty and clever, villains foreign and probably whiff a bit of garlic when you get downwind of them.

That having been said, the pace of the book never flags and there are a few genuine revelations along the way. A curious throwback to a different age of British sf but not without its charms.

 

Sailor on the Seas of Fate – Michael Moorcock

 
The second of the original Elric books. Elric finds himself on another plane with three incarnations of the Eternal Champion, charged with the destruction of twin gods who threaten the very existence of the multiverse, he fights an ancient Melnibonean nobleman and journeys to the cradle of his own civilisation’s birth.

My admiration for Michael Moorcock is already a matter of record, his work is one of the central pillars of modern fantasy and the doomed Prince Elric one of his most enduring creations (if not the most enduring).

The notion of the Eternal Champion is one which emerges time and time again in Moorcock’s work and in Sailor on the Seas of Fate, we are treated to not only Elric himself, but also to extended cameos from Dorian Hawkmoon, Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Erekose as well as a plethora of minor characters almost any of whom would have been deserving of centre stage in their own stories (in particular the scarred scholar turned swordsman Otto Blendker.

The novel also marks the first appearance (chronologically speaking) of Count Smiorgan Baldhead, who would go on to play a pivotal role in The Dreaming City, and the revelation that Elric’s sword, Stormbringer, might be as much master as servant in the Elric/ Stormbringer dichotomy.

Wonderful.

 

Smog – Italo Calvino

 
Calvino’s novella about a disenchanted young man and a city on the edge of social collapse. The smog here is mostly metaphorical – although the hero does see some actual smog at one point – the smog that clouds the mind and soul of urban dwellers.

Although there is little of the overtly fantastical here, Smog carries with it the atmosphere of magical realism – small details become magnified to great importance, the implied threat of nuclear war hangs in the background and the narrator’s journey towards a sort of self-discovery (if indeed it is so) comes as a surprise to both him and to the reader.

One of Calvino’s great strengths as a writer is his refusal to lead the reader by the nose through the story, preferring to hint, sometime even to misdirect, so that the story unfolds by degrees and even the final revelation of Smog is shrouded in literary mist.

 

Whitstable – Stephen Volk

 
Published in 2013 to mark the centenary of Peter Cushing’s death, Whitstable features the venerable British horror actor as its main character.

Set after the death of his beloved wife Helen, we first encounter the fictional Cushing all but crushed by grief, physically and emotionally devastated, his life shattered and the purpose for living gone.

A chance meeting with a young boy on the Whitstable seafront changes things for him. Convinced that the ageing actor is none other than Professor Van Helsing, the child asks for his help – his stepfather, he believes, is a vampire, and who better to deal with him that the most famous vampire hunter of them all?

However, this is no rehash of Fright Night with the ‘real’ Cushing in place of the ersatz Peter Vincent played by Roddy Macdowell, but rather a deeply touching mediation on the nature of grief and of how evil is never confined to fiction but can reach out and touch us in our everyday lives.

Weaving much of Cushing’s life and career into the narrative, Stephen Volk creates a air of ambiguity about the situation he finds himself in – not least in the powerful scene where Cushing is confronted by the ‘vampire’ in his own home, in which the ‘villain’ appears to be obeying all the rule of cinematic vampirism, or equally in the novel’s chilling ending in which the traditional methods of vampire slaying are given a new and very modern (well, early 1970s) twist.

Above all, though, Whitstable is a glowing tribute to one of British cinema’s greatest horror stars, one which seeks to humanise the man on the screen and, in the end, leaves both us and him with hope for the future.

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